The Weird, Wonderful World of Manga

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It’s amazing to me that I’ve been writing this column for seven days short of a year, and haven’t yet touched manga.

Maybe it’s because the subject is so huge that I knew I’d need to really tuck into it to make any meaningful presentation of it. So here goes-let’s start with an introduction.

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My first encounter with manga was indirect: as many others did, I found it through anime. There are many crossovers between the two-certainly most manga we get in the West are titles popular enough to have been made into animated films, or vice versa-but manga has a special history and culture all its own.

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Everybody–and I mean everybody–in Japan reads manga.

Like many things to do with modern Japan, Japanese comics are the result of a collision of something intrinsically Japanese with something Western, and mutations branching out from there. They incorporate disparate elements related to traditional Japanese art forms (like ukiyo-e prints, sumi-e dry brush painting, and scenes built with forced perspective) and the works of Walt Disney. Add to this a visual sensibility that is uniquely Japanese, indeed, uniquely manga: an unusual reckoning of pattern and texture; a fearlessness of silence, emptiness and blank spaces; a riot of exaggerated expressions and caricature. And, of course, the fact that Japanese as a written language is actually processed differently by the brain. You’ll see manga readers flipping through their phone book-thick comics with unbelievable speed, mostly because they take in a whole spread of imagery and text in one big flash.

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The thing I noticed most about manga while I actually lived in Japan was that everyone reads them. Elderly women and men, teenagers, kids barely old enough to read. There are businessman manga, about corporate conquests; manga about housewives; teen angst of every imaginable stripe; even manga geared toward workers in factories. It’s the most versatile medium I’ve ever encountered.

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Astro Boy, the post-war creation of Osamu Tezuka, one of the first major manga characters.

Manga began appearing in Japan around 1945, and became an established art form during the post-World War II U.S. occupation from 1945-1952. This period produced some of the most famous manga artists, and absolutely established many of the characteristics that define the form even today.

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A friend of mine once (somewhat disparagingly) described manga characters as “wispy hair, giant eyes, tiny mouths, and a whole lotta syrup.” Japanese culture is immune to the idea of cuteness destroying the seriousness of any set piece. Anything without some degree of what we might view as cute or silly would make a story seem ponderous and heavy. I had a hard time with some of these contrasts. I remember being baffled, leafing through manga in Japanese comics book stores, at scenes of indescribably gruesome horror interwoven with school girl antics, fuzzy creatures and all. Then there’s all the texture behind the Japanese word for cute: “kawaii.” With roots going all the way back to the 11th century, this word can mean “cute,” or it can mean “poignant.” There is a deeply ingrained sensibility in Japanese literature that sadness is somehow pretty, and cute things are thought of as somehow moving. (Japanese has all sorts of handy words for such ambiguities and paradoxes.)

One of about a million examples of sound effects--here shown as Japanese katakana--drawn in as part of the artwork.
One of about a million examples of sound effects–here shown as Japanese katakana–drawn in as part of the artwork.

My deepest encounter with manga sensibilities occurred when I was working on my first book and my longest, at the same time. Garlands of Moonlight is a little novella, a Malay ghost story drawn by an Indonesian artist, but one who was profoundly influenced by manga. The Golden Vine is a brick-like, 300-page alternate history of Alexander the Great which, for reasons that I recall making sense at the time, I had illustrated by Japanese artists while I lived in Tokyo for a couple of years. In both cases, I had to repeatedly ask the artists to dial down manga tropes that made complete sense to them, but to me seemed like intrusions upon the storytelling. To wit: sound effects (there’s a whole parallel art form in Japanese comics around the integration of sound effects into the artwork), exaggerated faces and cuteness. I was moderately successful in stamping these out, much to my artists’ chagrin. But the whole process taught me a lot about how Japanese (and Japanese-influenced) comics artwork comes together.

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For one thing, the story tends to be fairly ancillary, a vehicle for moving the plot along and a medium for delivering spectacular visuals. Plot holes abound, verisimilitude goes out the window and pastiche is a standard practice. All of this is, for me, as a writer who doesn’t illustrate, completely unthinkable, so just imagine how frustrating I must have been to work with on this material, insisting peevishly on doing it My Way.

A page from Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira.
A page from Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.

Then there’s the elasticity of time. The comics medium has this characteristic: you can slow down and speed up time with a lot more flexibility than you easily could with prose or a time-based medium like film. But with Japanese comics, there is a tendency to take a single moment and hold within it, explode it or otherwise explore what’s going on in that instant, before hitting “play” again. There’s a murmur of Zen in this. For someone sensitive to pace, or accustomed to linear storytelling, the effect can be jarring.

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And let’s not forget that most manga are drawn (what is, for the Western reader) backwards. Like many Japanese books, they start at the back and read forward, reflecting the mutability of the layout of Japanese text. The Golden Vine was drawn this way, and the images were flipped when the book was put together. Not all of the compositions fully survived the transposition, a situation not helped by another characteristic of manga: the idea of comic book “panels” is often more of a notion than a method, especially in very active scenes. Borders and divisions are somewhat arbitrary, and weird angles, intricate reading order and breathtaking changes in scale and perspective are common-indeed, necessary, at the rate most Japanese readers devour the material.

(Oddly, both of these books I mentioned proved to be fairly popular in Japan, so I guess the end result can’t have been so bad.)

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All this said, and for all its occasional oddness to unfamiliar eyes, there’s so much wonder in manga, not least the sheer amount of it available out there. And manga have clearly influenced not only Western comics, but many other forms of visual expression as well.

Next time, I’ll be focusing on the first manga I read in its entirety and actually felt like I understood: Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.


Jai Sen is a Brooklyn-based graphic novelist and digital media consultant.